The Music of Spain: Composers of the Civil War

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert The Music of Spain: Composers of the Civil War, performed on Feb 25, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who styled himself “Caudillo de España por la gracia de Dios,” despised the nineteenth century, for this particular tyrant identified the romantic era with the disruptive transgressions of individualism, rebellion, anti-clericalism, and political liberalism. Franco much preferred the sixteenth century, the “Siglo de Oro” (“The Golden Age”), which he viewed as the apex of Spanish greatness in politics and art, as well as a period when the influence of his own Roman Catholic faith, as exemplified by the Inquisition, pervaded and regulated all facets of Spanish life. Franco’s brand of Fascist ideology was thus pro-Catholic and socially conservative—and profoundly homophobic. Franco was a ghastly dictator, but his long “regency” was notable for what did not occur: he did not make an alliance with the Axis powers during the Second World War; his regime was not officially anti-Semitic, which made Spain a haven for some 200,000 Jews; and unlike either the Nazis or Soviets, his regime welcomed the objectivity of musical Modernism, if contained within nationalistic limits and depending on the political convictions of the composer. This program explores the work of three composers whose lives were changed dramatically by the triumph of Franco’s Nationalist Party after the horrifying carnage that was the Spanish Civil War. During the war, the Nationalists executed tens of thousands of Spaniards, many of whom were leftists, artists, Republicans, atheists, Freemasons, and intellectuals, including the great (and notoriously gay) poet, Federico García Lorca, in 1936.

MANUEL DE FALLA (1876–1946)

Homenajes (“Homages”), Suite for Orchestra (1938–9)

Stravinsky famously described Manuel de Falla’s nature as “the most unpityingly religious I have ever known—and the least sensible to manifestations of humor.” Francis Poulenc, a far more ebullient Roman Catholic than Spaniard, marveled at Falla’s strict daily attendance at early mass. Falla’s religious fervor would lead him into political difficulty during the Spanish Civil War, however, when, horrified by rumors (which, indeed, were more than just rumors) of the torture and murder of priests and nuns by extreme Republican factions, he wrote a public letter denouncing the atrocities. The composer’s political naivety played into Franco’s hands: the Nationalists attempted strenuously to co-opt Spain’s greatest composer for their cause. Disheartened by the devastation that came in the wake of the Civil War, Falla accepted gladly an offer to conduct a series of concerts in 1939 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. After these successful events, Falla settled permanently in Argentina with his sister, Maria del Carmen, and, resisting the blandishments of the Spanish government, never returned to his native land.

Many reasons have been advanced for Falla’s self-induced exile in South America. One theory is that Falla was a closeted homosexual who, after his courageous but fruitless attempts to save Lorca from execution, may have feared reprisal. Although his circle included such homosexuals as Wanda Landowska, Francis Poulenc, Serge Diaghilev, and the British Hispanicist J. B. Trend, who was the life partner of the Cambridge music historian E. J. Dent, there is no hard evidence that the Spanish composer was a homosexual or that, if he was, he ever acted on his supposed sexual proclivities. (Counter-arguments to the possibility of Falla’s homosexuality are often founded on the rather amusing premise that such a devout and austere Roman Catholic would have been incapable of secretly gratifying such sinful and perverse proclivities.) Perhaps Falla believed that a government that would execute a great poet was not one within which he wished to live, but he may have just craved the quiet and security that Argentina offered him at a fraught and dangerous moment in history.

Falla compiled, rather than composed, his last completed orchestral work, Homenajes, for his appearances in Buenos Aires and conducted the premiere there on November 18, 1939. All of the movements are based on preexisting materials: the earliest of these was Homenaja pour Guitare that appeared in a special 1920 edition of the Revue Musicale dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy. In that issue, Falla’s homage appeared alongside musical tributes by Stravinsky, Ravel, Roussel, and Satie. (Interestingly enough, Debussy was one of Lorca’s favorite composers.) Surrounding this elegy to Debussy is a fanfare in honor of the Spanish conductor and violinist Enrique Arbós—the musical materials of which are derived from Arbos’ initials. The next movement, and, touchingly, the second elegy within Homenajes, is a reworking of a “tombeau” written in memory of Falla’s loyal friend Paul Dukas, while the finale is a tribute to his beloved teacher, Felipe Pedrell.

JOAQUÍN TURINA (1882-1949)

Sinfonía Sevelliana, Op. 23 (1920)

Like his friend and colleague Manuel de Falla, Turina had to travel to Paris in order to become completely Spanish. Already a brilliant pianist and a promising composer before he left for France, Turina studied composition there with the redoubtable pedagogue Vincent D’Indy at the austere Schola Cantorum, a school founded to counter the perceived worldliness of the Paris Conservatory. Falla, however, successfully urged Turina to eschew the pious aesthetics espoused by D’Indy and take Spanish popular music as the basis of his style. After his return to Spain, Turina settled in Madrid, winning many prizes and teaching at the Madrid Conservatory in 1930. During the Spanish Civil War, Turina and his family fell afoul of the Republicans and he embraced enthusiastically the order brought to him by Franco’s fascist government. After the end of the war, and partly in consequence of Falla’s self-imposed exile in Argentina, Franco’s government heaped honors upon Turina, ultimately awarding him the Grand Cross of Alfonso the Wise.

One of Turina’s most celebrated works is his Sinfonia Sevilliana, Op. 23, which was given its premiere on September 11, 1920 by the Madrid Symphony Orchestra conducted by Enrique Arbós. This coruscating evocation of Turina’s natal city of Seville is more a symphonic poem than a thematically integrated symphony; the composer’s penchant for employing a brilliant, at times garish, orchestral palette pervades the entire score. The first movement, Panorama, which is cast in sonata form, is the aural equivalent of a bird’s-eye view of Seville, while the voluptuous second movement, entitled Por el rio Guadalquivir (“By Guadalquivir River”) evinces the influence of the French Impressionists. The finale, Fiesta en San Juan de Aznalfarache, described by the composer as a fantasy in three parts, is a veritable riot of local color that recalls Respighi’s tone poem Feste Romane.

ROBERTO GERHARD (1896-1870)

Don Quixote (1940–1 and 1947–9)

Symphony No. 4, “New York” (1967–8)

Born to a Swiss father and an Alsatian mother, Roberto Gerhard proudly and defiantly considered himself truly Catalan. (In Catalan and in German, his first name is simply “Robert,” but he later adopted the Castilian form “Roberto” for political reasons.) Gerhard studied piano with another Catalan composer, Granados, and was the last pupil of the great Filipe Pedrell, an astonishingly successful pedagogue whose other students included Albéniz, Granados, and Falla. Unlike these composers, however, Gerhard spurned Paris for Vienna, where he became a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. In 1931, Gerhard was appointed to a teaching post at the Ecole Normal de al Generalitat in Barcelona. During the Civil War, Gerhard and his family were ardent Republicans who lived in Barcelona, a city that gallantly resisted the Nationalists. After Franco’s final victory, Gerhard fled to Great Britain with his wife, where E. J. Dent, at the urging of his partner J.B. Trend, managed to award the Catalan composer a modest fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge. (Gerhard and his wife later repaid Dent’s kindness by nursing the music historian through a serious illness in1942). Gerhard, who became a British subject in 1960, remained in Cambridge for the rest of his life, augmenting his modest living through composing for radio, films (including the wonderful This Sporting Life), and the theater; his music was proscribed in Spain until after Franco’s death. In 1967, Gerhard was made a Commander of the British Empire and awarded an honorary doctorate from King’s College where he was a beloved and, indeed, revered figure.

Gerhard’s greatest success came with his ballet, Don Quixote, which was originally written in 1940–1 for chamber ensemble; the score was later reworked extensively in 1947 to 1949 and rescored for large orchestra. With stunning choreography by Ninette de Valois and brilliant décor by Edward Burra, Don Quixote was a resounding success at its premiere by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1951. The composer’s scenario skillfully condenses Cervante’s sprawling picaresque novel down to a clearly defined series of interrelated episodes apt for dancing. Gerhard’s music is so lively and rhythmical that few listeners at the time of its premiere were aware that the Catalan composer had employed his inimitable adaptation of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique to generate the musical materials. Surely Gerhard’s choice of this quintessentially Spanish subject, composed at that time and in exile, was meant to have a political resonance.

By contrast, Gerhard’s late Fourth Symphony, “New York,” is a powerful one-movement work that engages with both the 1960s avant-garde and refracted memories of Catalan folk music. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for is 125th Anniversary (thus giving rise to the sobriquet “New York,” which was attached to the work by the composer himself), the symphony was premiered on December 14, 1967 by the New York Philharmonic conducted by William Steinberg. Gerhard’s own words serve as an eloquent portal through which to enter into the world of this expressive and richly complex work: “A composer needs grace (inspiration), guts, intellect, madness; and systems are a sine qua non, because the intellect can only work, only take grip, when confronted by a system.”

Byron Adams

Mr. Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside, and his music has been performed across Europe and the U.S. He has published widely on the subject of English music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.